SAN FRANCISCO — Nail salons thought they were just one of the businesses most vulnerable to the coronavirus, along with gyms, tattoo parlors, hair salons, massage therapists and piercing studios.
But the industry dominated by Vietnamese Americans suffered the biggest public relations blow when California Gov. Gavin Newsom in May said a nail salon was responsible for the state’s first community exposure. Nail salons were already facing anti-Asian sentiment in the wake of the coronavirus; now, owners and workers were particularly worried.
“Why Vietnamese American?” asked Janet Nguyen, a former Republican state senator currently running for an Assembly seat in Orange County, home to the largest Vietnamese community outside of Vietnam. “It’s the one industry that is very specific to a community, and you completely devastate and put a dagger in our hearts.”
Vietnamese Americans have built clout in Orange County politics over several decades, but their tendency to send Republicans to Sacramento has put them at a disadvantage in the Democratic-supermajority state. The pandemic prompted nail salon advocates to reach out to Democratic lawmakers in Northern California districts, as well as allies in the broader beauty industry, to advocate for their survival.
Nail salons had to close in most counties Monday after another Newsom shutdown as coronavirus surges in California. But this time, they are better prepared. Though devastating, Newsom’s words served as a rallying cry to unify the industry.
“Within the next 12 hours after Gov. Newsom’s remark on May 7 … we hosted the largest press conference I’ve ever been to,” said Tam Nguyen, owner of Advance Beauty College in Orange County and the founder of the group Nailing It for America, which has been collecting personal protective equipment to donate to health care workers.
“I’ve never in my 40-plus years in the industry seen the nail salon community come together as much as it has during this pandemic,” he said. “Collaboration among competitors takes a crisis.”
Nail salon owners say they face two obstacles: recovering from the hit to their bottom line from months of closure, as well as worries about their reputation. The state gave the green light to hair salons and barbershops more than two weeks before it allowed nail salons to open.
The nail salon industry has bristled at that difference, suggesting their shops are just as safe.
Some advocates wondered whether they were being singled out because leaders thought the first community transmission occurred in a nail salon — a suggestion that has never been fully explained since Newsom’s comment. His health department told POLITICO later that the “first known community spread” in California was detected in a nail salon but acknowledged that subsequent studies have suggested the virus was circulating in the state before that.
The governor’s comment was broadcast widely. Merced County Sheriff Vern Warnke advocated in May for businesses to reopen and said in an interview with the Merced Sun-Star he didn’t know if the nail salon origin was accurate. But he still observed, “Well, a lot of the nail salons have Asian women, and who knows what area they’ve come from or whatever?”
“There were a lot of concerns around why nail salons were allowed to open late. Whether or not it was connected to the misinformation around the first community case being connected to nail salons, we’ll never know, but it seems that could be the case,” said Lisa Fu, executive director of the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative, a 15-year-old group that advocates for health- and environmentally-focused practices. “He never retracted that statement.”
Nguyen also wondered if Vietnamese Americans were being punished in blue-state California because they are known to be more Republican than other Asian American voters.
“All of this comes into play,” said Nguyen, whose mother owned a nail salon. “It felt like, ‘Is there something more that we should know? Is this about the industry or is this something deeper?'”
About 20 percent of the country’s Vietnamese immigrants live in the greater Los Angeles region, where they have become an influential voting bloc. In the Orange County city of Westminster, home to the Little Saigon neighborhood, four out of five city council members are Vietnamese.
“They vote by mail, they vote often, they vote Vietnamese,” said Fred Smoller, a political science professor at Chapman University. “They’ve become a very powerful political force.”
Janet Nguyen’s Democratic opponent, Garden Grove Councilwoman Diedre Thu-Ha Nguyen, said she began reaching out to officials the day after Newsom’s comments. “We’ve been working very closely with the governor’s office, emailing almost every single day,” she said.
Fu’s group also sought help from the Asian and Pacific Islander Legislative Caucus, particularly its chair, Assemblymember David Chiu (D-San Francisco). Chiu sent a letter to Newsom May 15 raising industry concerns — including a mention of the governor’s remark. He also set up two video meetings in early June with Newsom administration officials, the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative and Nailing It for America, where the groups presented the administration with recommendations on reopening and outreach to salons.
And nine lawmakers from Orange County, led by Assemblymember Tyler Diep (R-Westminster) and state Sen. Tom Umberg (D-Santa Ana), sent Newsom a letter June 10 asking why nail salons hadn’t received guidelines yet. “Many across the state are questioning why nail salons are classified as an industry unsafe for reopening while similar industries such as hair salons are not,” they wrote.
The state’s guidelines for nail salons, tattoo parlors and massage therapists, released June 12, included many of HNSC’s recommendations, like not letting customers touch nail-polish displays and disinfecting pedicure bowls for at least 10 minutes even if a disposable liner was used.
The administration didn’t respond to questions about its negotiations with nail salons — or why it differentiated between nails and hair.
But this time around, Newsom has treated them the same by reclosing all “personal services.”
The state Environmental Protection Agency also awarded Fu’s group a $50,000 grant on July 10 to train at least 2,500 nail salon workers and owners, “many of them Vietnamese refugees and immigrants, how to reduce their exposure to toxic chemicals and COVID-19.”
Chiu said the pandemic has underscored the need for small businesses to join together and advocate for themselves. “This is an industry that is predominantly Asian, made up of Asian immigrants, and it’s a community that has not been as well represented in the past,” he said. “Now we’re in touch and collaborating, and that’s a good thing.”
The Personal Beauty Federation of California may also have played a role by suing Newsom to reopen hair and nail salons, among others. The group’s lawyer, Fred Jones, said he didn’t think Newsom realized the political implications of singling out nail salons.
“Unbeknownst I think at the time to the governor when he said it, he didn’t realize three-fourths of nail salons were owned by first-generation Vietnamese immigrants, most of whom are female,” Jones said, the group’s lawyer. “I don’t think he really appreciated that fact.”
Now, with Newsom announcing the reclosure of hair salons, nail salons and other personal care services on Monday, “we just took a big step backwards,” said Tam Nguyen. He estimated the first stay-at-home order forced about 35 percent of the state’s 11,000 nail salons to permanently close. The new shutdown will put more out of business. “Depending on the second closing, how long it goes, we could be looking at 50 percent,” he said.
Fu is focused on making sure the administration releases its guidelines in Vietnamese — which the industry is still waiting on — and circulating information on varying local ordinances. Prior to the reclosing, she was conducting virtual walkthroughs with salons and giving them her group’s translated guidelines.
She thinks the state should be doing more outreach and making it clear that customers have to wear masks, particularly in Southern California, where the outbreak is the worst and where Orange County residents in particular have been resisting masks. The mask resistance has come despite Newsom’s statewide order June 18 for residents to wear face coverings in most public settings.
“It’s not reaching the workforce,” she said. “Please go on Vietnamese news and talk through what some of the guidelines are, let people know how to protect themselves.”
But Nguyen said he feels better prepared to lobby for another reopening thanks to the networking he had to do the first time around.
“We now know contacts from the governor’s office, senior staff, we now know contacts from the California Department of Public Health,” he said. “We are much better positioned today than we were just back in March to be able to advocate best for our industry.”